Five-year-old Gloria Weston is altogether too fond of her mute robot nursemaid, Robbie, at least so far as her mother is concerned. After much badgering, she gets her husband to return Robbie to US Robots, but Gloria is distraught and refuses to be comforted. They go on a trip to distract her, and while there, her father suggests taking Gloria to the factory where she can see robots being made. That might teach her that Robbie was just a machine, not a person, and help her get over him. Secretly, he’s arranged for her to see Robbie in the hopes that her subsequent delight will convince his wife to bring Robbie home. The plan succeeds, to a point—Gloria is so delighted to see Robbie that she rushes towards him and is nearly killed before anybody (but Robbie) can react. Her mother, grateful that Robbie saved her life, reluctantly lets him back.
This is one of the better robot stories for all that it’s the earliest and Asimov’s style here is distinctly primitive. The idea is interesting and story cute and simple—it’s entirely appropriate that among the various Asimov stories individually published for young readers is Robbie. Particularly important, of course, is the fact that Robbie is a sympathetic robot from the beginning, engineered with safeguards to keep him from running amuck and killing his creators.
Critics not infrequently find the appeal of the story somewhat puzzling. The Westons, after all, are a family seeming to hover just on the safe side of dysfunctional: Gloria is forceful if not spoiled, her mother is a shrew, and her father more than a little hen-pecked.
It is not, however, the family which is at the emotional heart of the story—it’s Gloria’s relationship with Robbie. Asimov here managed to key into the same magical bond between a child and their playthings which Pixar touched with the three Toy Story films. Asimov portrays Robbie as a robot which, in a very real sense, loves his mistress and very likely in his own way misses her, just as Woody loves Andy. Interestingly enough, this aspect of human-robot relations also lies at the emotional heart of Forward the Foundation, where Dors Venabili loves Hari Seldon as intensely as any human ever loved any other.
It is particularly interesting that the lengthy opening scene, where Gloria and Robbie are playing in a field in the countryside, is so nicely magical. Asimov at nineteen had never been to the country and had very limited experience with little girls; but he writes the scene well, regardless.
“Robbie” has one more thing going for it, and that is the wry humor which permeates the story. Asimov thought his early attempts at humor were failures, but this isn’t quite true. His early attempts at humorous stories were failures, but the humor that is a part of many of his earlier short fiction works very nicely. It’s a shame that as he got older he stopped putting in the occasional comic relief. Here we get for the most part cute little asides from Gloria’s father that provoke a nice little chuckle as one reads.